13 famous car brands that went to the scrapheap in the sky
Building horseless carriages is not for the weak! This statement, one imagines, must have been uttered at some point in the earliest days of car development. Picture the line being dictated by someone with a heavy moustache and a monocle for greater authenticity. Accent optional.
Indeed, the automotive realm, in well over a century of existence, has seen its fair share of casualties. Ambitions underpinned by a passion for mobility, that succumbed to the myriad challenges associated with the nitty gritty of keeping an automobile business on the road. We singled out 13 examples for your learning pleasure, in alphabetical order.
Auburn | Birth: 1900 | Death: 1937
Among the interesting details about Auburn, is the hood ornament that adorned its later vehicles. It features a flying figure not unlike the Spirit of Ecstasy employed by a certain British carmaker.
What led to the end of the American firm, named for an area in the state of Indiana, was that its products, while innovative, were not well-suited to budgets of most in the wake of the Great Depression. Its owner, Errett Lobban Cord had also been nabbed for stock manipulations, forcing him to disinvest from his holding company, thus closing the doors of Auburn and its two divisions, Cord and Duesenberg.
The Auburn 851 Speedster of 1935 certainly looks as blingy as one envisages a retro luxury tourer ought to. Seems like a car Jay Gatsby would have pedalled. No coincidence perhaps that in the film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the protagonist steers a yellow 1922 Duesenberg Model J.
Austin | Birth: 1905 | Death: 1987
Now a shadow in the annals of history, the company bearing the name of Herbert Austin was a big deal at one point. The mass-market Austin 7 of 1922 even gave birth to BMW in a way – a rebadged version dubbed the Dixi was the first car to be sold by the German firm. From 1934 Datsun also began to build the 7 under licence. In 1952, the Austin Motor Company Limited merged with Morris Motors Limited, forming the British Motor Corporation Limited (BMC), under which marques such as MG, Riley, Vanden Plas and Wolseley also fell. It's worth remembering that the early guises of the iconic Mini were sold under the Austin (and Morris) names before becoming a standalone brand in the portfolio.
Then in 1966 BMC became British Motor Holdings Limited (BMH) after taking over Jaguar and the Pressed Steel Company Limited. Two years after that the operation was rebranded as the British Leyland Motor Corporation Limited (BLMC), when BMH married Leyland Motors. Now the monolith included Land Rover, Rover and Triumph in addition to the brands above. Still with us?
The troubled and complicated history of this British motoring empire certainly makes for further recommended reading. Eventually, BLMC became Rover Group in 1986. British Aerospace hopped aboard in 1987 and sold its stake to BMW in 1994. Then, in 2000, BMW opted to sell-up, which split Rover Group into Land Rover and MG Rover Group. The former was then bought by Ford and its Premier Automotive Group, while MG Rover Group went to the Phoenix Consortium, headed by ex-Rover CEO John Towers.
By 2005 the operation went bust and remaining assets were taken on by Nanjing Automobile Group, which merged with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). SAIC reinvented MG as MG Motor and still holds the rights to the Austin name.
Cord | Birth: 1929 | Death: 1937
Operating alongside Auburn and Duesenberg, in addition to serving as the holding company of both brands, Cord pioneered many firsts for its home market of America. The L-29 was the first American front-wheel drive car to go on sale. The 810 and 812 models of 1935 featured niceties such as a four-speed, semi-automatic transmission and was said to have “caused a sensation” when it featured at the New York Auto Show in November that year.
DeLorean | Birth: 1975 | Death: 1982
John Zachary DeLorean was an executive at General Motors (GM) before he jumped ship to pursue his own interests. In 1975 he established the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC) which saw the creation of its only product, the stainless-steel-bodied DMC-12 coupé with gull-wing doors. The model was ill-fated, with high development costs and low demand when it did eventually reach the market. Drug-trafficking charges also expedited the journey to the end of the business road for the founder of the company.
He died in 2005. Of course, the covetable wedge on wheels will forever be immortalised thanks to the 1985 film Back to the Future. But DMC is not completely six-feet under, as a Texas-based private company took on the remaining inventory and trademarks of the firm in 1995. The rumour mill recently asserted that a revival, which had been in discussion for numerous years, may see fruition in 2021.
Optimal Energy | Birth: 2005 | Death: 2012
Remember that time SA had its own electric vehicle manufacturer? Optimal Energy was a company based in Cape Town. Its first product, the Joule, was displayed at the Paris Motor Show in 2008. It promised a range of 150km, seating for five and was designed to achieve a four-star EuroNCAP rating. The model was forecast to cost in the region of R300,000, were it to go on sale.
It never did go on sale – after a R300m total investment in the project, support dried up as funders (including government) believed the undertaking at the time was commercially unsustainable. Perhaps the concept was far too ambitious for a small local operation to have succeeded at from the get-go. Not terribly long after the Joule was canned, Nissan launched the Leaf in SA and BMW released its i3. More have joined the fray since, as you know, and there are more still to be released on our shores.
Mercury | Birth: 1938 | Death: 2011
In the late 1930s Ford decided that an entry-premium marque was what it needed. Enter the conception of Mercury, which sat between the mainstream Ford offensive and a tier below the upmarket Lincoln models. Even though the offerings were reskinned versions of their Blue Oval donors, interesting nomenclature was spawned from these badge-engineering exercises. Cougar, Cyclone, Comet, Bobcat, Lynx, Colony Park – cats, natural phenomena and popular areas were the go-to choices it seemed. Ford culled the Mercury division in 2011 as its profitability began to spiral.
NSU | Birth: 1873 | Death: 1969
The Neckarsulm-based, West German company started life as a manufacturer of knitting machines. It went on to the production of bicycles, then motorcycles, followed by cars in 1905. But 1964 would cement what the firm was arguably best known for: Wankel engines. The Wankelspider (yes, that was its real name) was the first car in the world to employ a Wankel engine.
But it is the Ro80 of 1967 that still seems to be the biggest talking point in the history of NSU. Its disc brakes, independent suspension, rotary engine, semi-automatic transmission and aerodynamic styling ensured it was the recipient of great acclaim. Until the well-documented mechanical failures began to sprout.
In 1969, Volkswagen took NSU over and merged it with Auto Union, forerunner to Audi as we know it. The year 1977 marked the end of Ro80 production – and the last time the NSU nameplate was used.
Oldsmobile | Birth: 1897 | Death: 2004
True to name perhaps, this was one of the oldest automobile brands in the world when it was axed by parent company General Motors (GM) in 2004. In 1904, founder Ransom Eli Olds’ company, began production of a vehicle named the Curved Dash, which was credited as being the first mass-produced vehicle in the world.
A plaudit not to be confused with that bestowed upon Henry Ford and his Model T, which was the first vehicle to be mass-produced on a moving line. The Curved Dash was also the first production car to offer a speedometer. GM bought Oldsmobile in 1908. In 1940 it became the first manufacturer to offer a fully-automatic transmission.
The 1970s and 1980s were regarded as the golden years for the brand, where sales boomed and the reception from critics was said to be positive. Oldsmobile was positioned as something of a premium brand in its domestic market. Decline began in the 1990s, as upmarket divisions of Japanese marques (Acura, Infiniti, Lexus) muscled-in on the American market.
Pontiac | Birth: 1926 | Death: 2010
Another long-standing name that was canned by General Motors (GM) – and not the last on this list. Pontiac was founded by GM as a sister to the 1907 Oakland vehicle brand, which was slightly more upmarket. Pontiac soon supplanted Oakland in sales and Oakland was struck off the roll.
From the 1960s, the Pontiac brand served a role as the sporting-orientated division of the GM mix. Think of icons like the GTO muscle car. And how could anyone forget the Trans Am, which featured as the star in legendary titles such as Smokey and the Bandit and Knight Rider. The Fiero, with its compact body, rear-wheel drive and engine in the middle, was launched in 1984.
That same year Toyota dropped its MR2, with the same layout, interestingly. In 2004 the GTO nameplate was revived on a coupé body format of the vehicle we knew as the Chevrolet Lumina SS. In 2010 Pontiac was among the casualties in the bankruptcy and restructure of GM.
Rover | Birth: 1878 | Death: 2005
Rover was of course a victim in the great corporate kerfuffle as outlined in the paragraph on Austin. Officially, the rights to Rover belong to Tata Motors, included in their acquisition of Jaguar Land Rover from Ford in 2008
The Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC), which purchased and revived MG as MG Motor, also created a brand dubbed Roewe which does appear to be a facsimile of Rover. But allow us to ignore that for a second and focus on some of the notable creations from the original Rover marque. Like the genesis Land Rover. Or the first Range Rover. Or saloons such as the stylish SD1 of 1976.
In 1979 the marque began selling rebadged Honda models. When BMW took over proceedings, it developed the elegant 75, which intended to draw on the spirit of luxury Rover saloons of yesteryear. Reviews were generally positive, but the whole exercise failed to turn Rover around, as we all know now. Still, one cannot help but feel that there might have been great potential for the Rover brand.
Saab | Birth: 1945 | Death: 2012
One of the lowest blows in the restructuring efforts undertaken by General Motors (GM) was the killing of Saab. An illustrious history of innovative cars – peppered with more than a smidgen of quirkiness – there are countless who would be thrilled to have seen the Swedish brand survive.
Saab Automobile was purchased from GM by a company named National Electric Vehicle Sweden (NEVS). The company lost the licence to produce cars under the Saab name, but continues to manufacture an electrified version of the 9-3 under the NEVS moniker, which it sells only in China.
In 2019 NEVS purchased a 20% stake in supercar manufacturer Koenigsegg. Technically, as has been opined by many an online motoring website, Saab in its current state is something of a zombie.
Studebaker | Birth: 1852 | Death: 1967
Electric mobility might be the buzzword in 2020, but this American automaker started dabbling with the technology as far back as 1902. Only two years later did it start producing vehicles with petrol engines. In 1937 it planted 5,000 pine trees at its South Bend, Indiana testing facility, spelling the Studebaker name – the arrangement of shrubbery is still alive and can purportedly still be seen on Google Earth.
Product highlights in the Studebaker chronicles include the 1962 Avanti, a four-seater, shooting brake powered by a V8. Meanwhile, the compact Lark of 1959 was available in sedan, wagon and convertible guises. In 1964, increasing financial troubles and dwindling sales forced the gradual winding-down of operations, until Studebaker was no more. Plans for partnership with Nissan or Toyota were on the cards, both of which fell through.
Triumph | Birth: 1885 | Death: 1984
Triumph lives on as a manufacturer of motorcycles, but there is no denying the storied past of the four-wheeled division. The marque started out as a builder of bicycles. In 1923 Triumph built the 10/20 but greater success came with the 1927 Super 7, which sold in greater volumes. In 1930 operations were rebranded under the Triumph Motor Company.
In 1944 the Standard Motor Company purchased Triumph, creating Standard-Triumph. Then, in 1960, Triumph was absorbed into Leyland Motors – refer to Austin for a recap of what transpired there. Notable hits from the old Triumph stable include the Spitfire roadster, TR series of sports cars and distinctive Stag tourer.
Curiously, BMW kept the rights to the Triumph marque when it sold its Rover interests two decades ago.